‘Let’s put on a show!’ Hibiscus, his sisters and other Angels of Light. — photo by Sheila Baykal, courtesy the Harris Family Archives
Before George Harris III became Hibiscus and founded the genderfluid theater troupe the Cockettes, he put on shows with his family in Florida during the early 1960s. The oldest of six siblings — three girls and three boys, sort of an avant-garde Brady Bunch — George formed the El Dorado Players, named after the street they lived on in Clearwater, Florida.
“Hibiscus had real leadership qualities,” his youngest sister Mary Lou said. “He came out of the womb as the grand marshal. He was just like the leader of the parade — tons of ideas. ‘Let’s get it rolling. Let’s not even think!’”
His loving parents encouraged this kind of creativity. George’s mother wrote plays and songs in college and his father, sometimes referred to as Big George, was a natural theatrical performer and drummer.
Until his final moments (Hibiscus died in 1982, a very early victim of the AIDS crisis), his colorful and offbeat shows were enabled by a family that cultivated his pioneering aesthetic — one that had a hugely important impact on queer culture. George III, who they sometimes called G3, got more than a little help from his mother, Ann Harris, who collaborated with him throughout his life.
“Just look at those Busby Berkeley movies; he was our idol,” Ann said, referring to the director and choreographer who glitter-bombed movie palaces in the 1930s and ’40s. “We all liked Busby Berkeley. I made sure they saw those ’30s movies and things that I loved.” Around 1960, G3 hatched the idea to create a theater in their garage. Little did this Florida family know that they were echoing what was already going on at the exact same time in downtown New York’s off-off-Broadway scene — a world they would soon be immersed in.
The performers, playwrights and directors in this underground theater movement made magic out of nothing, conjuring up eye-popping spectacles with no budget, just as the Harris family did. For example, the El Dorado Players’ garage had little room for sets, and their backstage door led to the kitchen. They placed lawn chairs in the driveway and sometimes rented klieg lights to announce to their neighbors the premier of a new show at their house.
In 1964, the Harris household went to New York City to dive into show business, moving into a cramped walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side. In New York, there was never any rest from shows and school. They all had agents, and some of the kids would be sent out for two days in Central Park to do a public service announcement while at the same time appearing in whacked-out shows downtown.
The oldest sister, Jayne Anne, remembers lying in a tub of green Jell-O, surrounded by dead rabbits, as her dad pretended to be a bum who was sprawled out on the ground during one of the many happenings they were involved in. Just another day in the life of the Harris family.
“You have to understand, everyday life was just as interesting as the theater itself,” said Mary Lou. “You were Alice going down a rabbit-hole every day. It was like being in a show in itself. The whole counterculture was one large theatrical happening.”
Her mom added, “Everything was one, the music and theater and art. Everybody was interested in everybody then, and it was beautiful.”
G3 was living a fairly apolitical life until he appeared with Al Pacino and James Earl Jones in the anti-Vietnam War play Peace Creeps in 1966, which awoke him to the bloodbath that was the Vietnam War. (His brother Michael had a similar awakening after becoming the youngest cast member in the Broadway debut of Hair, in 1968.) Soon after, George moved to San Francisco and formed the Cockettes — a revolutionary group that pioneered a new form of politics, one that playfully blurred gender binaries.
On New Year’s Eve, 1969, Hibiscus corralled a handful of freaks who wore hoop skirts, tinsel tiaras, feather boas and other accoutrements and danced the can-can to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” The audience at the Palace Theatre went bananas for the Cockettes’ debut. After they became a sensation, the Cockettes got offers to tour regionally and nationally, which ruffled Hibiscus’ feathers because he believed in free theater.
Sometime in 1971 or ’72, the prodigal son returned home to New York City and hit the ground running, recruiting his mother and three sisters (Jayne Anne, Eloise and Mary Lou) into a new group known as the Angels of Light.
“I wrote almost all the music for the Angels of Light,” Ann recalled. “George would say, ‘Oh, I need a sheik scene, with a sheik in it,’ and then I would come up with a song.”
“It was like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes In Arms,” Jayne Ann said, “when they do the show in the barn: ‘Let’s put on a show!’ That’s what it was like.” It felt magical. Hibiscus and the girls would go outside in the middle of winter in full drag and run through the streets to get to their home base, the Theater for the New City — where a thirteen-year-old Tim Robbins ran spotlight for the Angels of Light long before he became a Hollywood actor.
Ann also taught the kids how to tap dance the routines she learned from her days in the Dan Harrington School of Dance. “She remembered every single dance,” Jayne Anne said, “and taught all the queens in the West Village how to tap dance.” Discussing gay and trans performers like Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Marsha P. Johnson and her brother Hibiscus, Jayne Anne observed, “They helped change the world, and they didn’t even know it.”
Kembrew McLeod wants to remind readers that, while glitter can be fun, inhaling glitter is dangerous. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 221.